The House Committee Acts

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

The Senate formed a select committee on the assault of Charles Sumner. The committee, which had not a single Republican on it, ruled that Brooks had done a bad thing indeed but they had no rightful power to punish him for it. That power lay with the House of Representatives, as a coequal chamber. The Senate passed the buck, as the committee judged it constitutionally obligated, on May 28, 1856.

The House didn’t wait for the Senate. Its Know-Nothing/Republican/anti-Nebraska Opposition coalition voted a committee into existence on May 23, the day after Brooks broke his cane on Sumner’s head. On Saturday, the next day, the committee began its business by inviting Brooks to participate:

an order extending to you the privilege of appearing before it during the examination of witnesses, to suggest such questions as you may desire to have propounded by them

If Brooks had witnesses that wouldn’t cooperate, the committee placed their subpoena power at his service.

Sumner received a somewhat different missive. The committee understood that his “condition was somewhat critical” and forwarded their letter through his doctor. They explained their task and told him that they would meet properly on Monday, May 26, at 1 PM in the Ways and Means room. Sumner

will be expected to meet it whenever your attending physicians may deem it prudent that you should do so, to testify in the premises.

Brooks received a rather conciliatory letter, offering him options to defend himself. Sumner got a straight-up summons. The committee had a partisan makeup favorable to Sumner and would act as a prosecution on his behalf, so the tone seems odd. One would expect more solicitousness of Sumner than Brooks, but then Sumner would surely cooperate. Brooks might not, though he did recommend one witness in the end.

The committee did have some sympathy for Sumner’s frailty, though. They forwarded him the question they would ask in advance and invited him to prepare a statement in his boarding house. He could submit that as testimony and only have to answer directly in cross-examination. A note attached, told Dr. Boyle that he should present the letter to Sumner “the sooner the better” but only if he felt Sumner up to dealing with the affair.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Consideration extended to interviewing Sumner at his boarding house, though not without controversy. Howell Cobb moved that the chairman, Lewis Campbell of Ohio, call on Sumner and see if he could show up. If Sumner couldn’t just then, Campbell should find out when he might. The committee member who suggested going to Sumner then told them that Sumner essentially invited them to come over at 1:30 that day. The voted and Cobb’s measure lost.

And the committee thereupon proceeded to the lodgings of Mr. Sumner; Mr. Campbell having fist invited Mr. Brooks to proceed with them, and Mr. Brooks having declined.

Campbell must have invited Brooks in reference to his right to cross-examine witnesses. That the South Carolinian declined avoided an obviously tense, and likely traumatic, experience.

 

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The Senate Committee’s Verdict

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

Henry Wilson got his action, of a sort. He demanded that the Senate do something about Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner. At first no one rose to take up his suggestion that they form an investigatory committee, but then William Seward introduced a resolution to that effect. After a minor amendment, the Senate approved. The committee went to work sometime thereafter, delivering its report on May 28, six days after the attack.

The committee, unsurprisingly, agreed that Brooks had caned Sumner in response to words Sumner spoke on the floor of the Senate. They opted not to comment on “the various circumstances which preceded and attended this affair.” Instead, they reported looking into precedent. They had to scour the journals of the House of Representatives, as the Senate had no previous occasion to weigh in on such an event. The record held “an assault upon a member for words spoken in debate to be a violation of the privileges of the House.”

James Mason

So Brooks warranted some kind of disciplinary action. There the Senators found a difficulty. His attack upon Sumner “was a breach of the privileges of the Senate” yet “not within the jurisdiction of the Senate, and can only be punished by the House of Representatives, of which Mr. Brooks is a member.”

To support that conclusion, the committee referred to British precedent that made the houses of Parliament equals and independent of one another “in every respect.” As independent equals, neither house could exert authority over the other. Thomas Jefferson agreed in his parliamentary manual, holding that in such occasions the offended chamber should complain to the other or redress. As a member of the House, only the House could judge and punish Brooks.

The Senate might have gotten right on that, at least for the sake of maintaining the forms. The matter came almost to a vote, but then James Mason objected again. He noted

the honorable Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Butler,] who may feel, and probably does feel, an interest in this matter, is not in his seat. he has not been in the Senate to-day, I believe; I have not seen him. I think it would be better, therefore, to allow it to lie over. I do not know that he has any opinions in relation to it which he desires to express. I merely make the suggestion.

“Several senators” objected to delaying things, at which point Mason gave it up and the Senate agreed to the resolution.

The Senators might have found a way to try and punish Brooks if they wished to; politicians get creative about these things. A committee entirely unfavorable to Sumner, as the Senate elected, would probably not have exerted itself too much to find a solution. Yet on consideration, the problem does strike at the heart of bicameralism. The Constitution establishes two chambers of Congress, each with its own privileges. Those include the power to discipline their own members through use of each chamber’s rules. If the Senate could summon a congressman and punish his misconduct, then it sat as judge over the House.

One might reasonable counter with the argument that Brooks did not commit his crime in the House, but rather on the floor of the Senate. By entering the room, he entered their jurisdiction and had to abide by their rules. If Senate rules could regulate the behavior spectators in the gallery, as they did and do, then they clearly didn’t reach just Senators and those employed by the chamber as aides and officers. A Congressman might easily fall under them.

The committee found otherwise, but by referring the matter to the House and its antislavery coalition majority the Senators also knew the likely result. In relying on constitutional propriety to wash their own hands of Brooks, they probably expected that the House would find some way to handle him.

The Senate’s Committee

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

The day after Preston Brooks broke his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and left the Senator covered in his own blood, Henry Wilson got up and demanded that the Senate take “prompt and decisive action.” They had to do something, lest another Brooks come along. If Senators, in the chamber itself and for things they said in debate, faced mortal danger then democracy could not long endure. The afternoon previous, while Sumner lay blooded in his bed, the GOP caucus met and discussed strategy. They thought it best not to make a party issue of the attack and that the Massachusetts delegation ought not lead an investigation. Thus Wilson looked to the Senate in general for a solution, rising for the first substantive business on May 23, 1856. He concluded:

Senators, I have called your attention to this transaction. I submit no motion. I leave it to older Senators, whose character-whose position in this body, and before the country, eminently fit them for the task of devising measures to redress the wrongs of a member of this body, and to vindicate the honor and dignity of the Senate.

In other words, Wilson understood -or his Republican colleagues understood and convinced him- that if the GOP took a prominent role in this then it would look like a partisan affair. Proslavery men could charge that Republicans wanted revenge on Sumner’s behalf, not justice or fair inquiry. By deferring to elder Senators, Wilson sought to depoliticize the chamber’s response. Senators should view themselves as Senators and Americans first, acting with a view to the sacred prerogatives and safeguarding democracy.

Such a considered plea, complete with deference to the elder men of the Senate, drew out from every Senator in the chamber an eloquent silence. No one would stand up for Sumner. The presiding officer waited a decent amount of time and then began to move on.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward cut him off mid-sentence and offered a resolution. Neither the Congressional Globe nor Sumner’s biographer give any insight on whether Seward delayed for effect, out of his own doubts, or in hopes that someone, anyone, else would step forward. No one did, so he submitted a resolution:

That a committee of five members be appointed by the President [of the Senate] to inquire into the circumstances attending the assault committed on the person of the Hon. Charles Sumner, a member of the Senate, and in the Senate chamber yesterday; and that the said committee be instructed to report a statement of the facts, together with their opinion thereon, to the Senate.

That required unanimous consent. James Mason of Virginia rose to object, though he said he didn’t do so on the general principle of things. He merely preferred that Seward revise his resolution so that the Senate would elect the committee. Seward accepted and the Senate assented and the election took place at once. Lewis Cass, Phillip Allen, Augustus Caesar Dodge, Henry Geyer, and James Pearce won the spots, with Seward coming in sixth. Henry Wilson received one vote, probably his own. The committee included no Republicans, but did include Cass despite Sumner going after him in The Crime Against KansasGeyer and Pearce both hailed from slave states, Missouri and Maryland respectively, and Dodge had a career as a friend to popular sovereignty.

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Cass objected. He asked Senators before the vote not to support him and very much did not want to chair the committee, as “the task would impose too much labor, and I am old.” The presiding officer informed Cass that committees chose their own chairmen, which he must have known, and then further that since he had the fewest votes in the Senate they would probably not choose him anyway. Cass griped once more about being elected and let the matter drop.

Wilson would have some kind of action, but nothing about the composition of the committee could have encouraged him to expect satisfaction.

Henry Wilson on the Caning

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner in bed, astonished that anything like his travail could happen. A sitting United States Senator, on the floor of the Senate, violently beaten over the head with a cane. His attacker kept on after the cane broke, until physically restrained by a congressman. Others occupied the Senate chamber for that one frightful minute and few of them made any move to intervene on his behalf, save for John Crittenden (who insisted that Preston Brooks not kill Sumner) and Sumner’s political allies. Robert Toombs came closer, but later told the Senate that he approved of the caning. Maybe he wanted a better view. Stephen Douglas claimed that he thought about it, then realized someone might mistake him for a man who wanted to pile on. Lawrence Keitt intervened on Brooks’ behalf, warning away those who tried to stop it all. The nineteenth century Congress saw more rough behavior than we might expect, including at least one pistol drawn in the Senate previous to this, but no one that I know of had made contact until now. Certainly none had gone so far as Brooks.

The next day, Sumner did not come to the Senate. His junior colleague from Massachusetts, Henry Wilson, stood before the body and marked his absence. He reminded the Senate of the past day’s events briefly, stressing how Sumner’s position left him “utterly incapable of protecting or defending himself.” Brooks struck before Sumner “had time to utter a single word in reply” and left the Senator “blind and almost unconscious.” After that first blow, Brooks kept on until Sumner “was beaten upon the floor of the Senate, exhausted, unconscious, and covered with his own blood.” They would not see Sumner that day, but they must grapple with what the attack meant:

to assail a member of the Senate out of this Chamber, “for words spoken in debate,” is a grave offense, not only against the rights of the Senator, but the constitutional privileges of this House. But, sir, to come into this Chamber and assault a member in his seat until he falls exhausted and senseless on this floor, is an offense requiring the prompt and decisive action of the Senate.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Wilson made two important distinctions here. Sumner suffered attack “for words spoken in debate,” not for some personal misconduct or petty slight. The chamber should not understand him just as a man who got caned, but happened to have a seat among them. Rather, Sumner suffered for the execution of his duties as a Senator. Brooks, in effect, caned a Senator for Senator-ing. His attack struck Sumner physically, but all of them in principle. If the right to unhindered debate, guaranteed in the Constitution, meant anything then Brooks had grievously transgressed it.

Furthermore, Brooks made his attack in the Senate. Had he attacked Sumner elsewhere, the point would still obtain. Doing it in the chamber itself called into question whether any Senator, or at least any antislavery Senator, could actually speak freely without fear for his life. Invective flowed freely in the Senate, with colleagues on opposite sides of an issue sometimes congratulating one another on well-turned insults. Now that normal mode of doing business, where the Senators might indict one another viciously but did so with an assurance that they also did so with personal impunity, had gone. More than just threatening to silence antislavery voices, Brooks’ attack might have opened the door for other direct assaults that might drive antislavery men from the chamber entirely.

 

 

“I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.” Caning Charles Sumner, 15

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with two scalp wounds which went to the bone and various other cuts and bruises. Dr. Cornelius Boyle, summoned to the Capitol, stitched him up in the Senate antechamber in hopes that swift treatment would prevent infection. David Donald claims that Henry Wilson returned to the Senate, hearing of the attack, and escorted Sumner home. Wilson’s own testimony doesn’t mention that, nor does his statement to the Senate the day after. I haven’t found any confirmation in Donald’s citations. The House Report has a James Bluffington, of the House, arrive in the antechamber in time to see Sumner’s wounds stitched up and see him home. Bluffington

went home with Mr. Sumner, and saw his head dressed. I got him a clean shirt, and helped to put it on. The doctor ordered all from the room except myself and said that such was the condition of Mr. Sumner it was absolutely necessary that he should be kept quiet, for he could not tell the extent of the injuries at that time.

Bluffington’s account puts the doctor with them, so Wilson might also have come along and not warranted a mention because he didn’t do much at the boarding house. Or Donald may have confused the two men, as Bluffington occupies essentially the role he casts Wilson in as Sumner’s escort. Wilson ends his own testimony with recognizing Brooks and the two men exchanging nods as the Senator left the chamber, before the attack. If he had a larger role, it stands to reason it would have come up.

Sumner seems to have regained more command of his faculties around an hour after reaching the boarding house. Recollections from years later, after Sumner’s death, have him “lying on his bed” and remarking

I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

One must suspect such accounts of hagiography. Sumner had become a kind of national hero and it would flatter his memory, as the recollections do, to portray him as completely above recriminations. For him to transcend his caning makes him a greater hero still. Some of that probably plays into it, but Sumner brushed off serious warnings of danger to himself only days before the caning and his statement fits neatly with that.

Sumner did not grow up in a political culture where slights required violent answers, but rather one that stressed self-mastery. He spent his early life in a relatively respectable Massachusetts family surrounded by people of similar mind. Henry Wilson, who grew up in more modest circumstances, lacked that luxury and might have acquired a keener sense for when physical danger loomed. For his own part, Sumner had engaged in strong antislavery rhetoric before and people feared for his safety. He dismissed those fears and an attack had never come. Everything in his past experience suggested that one would not this time. Brooks proved Wilson right, but we only know that after the fact.

“Cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 14

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with John Slidell, who pulled back from him when they both came to a doorway. Slidell explained his apparent indifference as actual indifference a while after. Sumner had more immediate concerns. He lay on a sofa in the Senate anteroom, where Dr. Cornelius Boyle found him

bleeding very copiously, and with a great deal of blood upon his clothes. The blood went all over my shirt in dressing his wounds. His friends thought I ought not to dress his wounds there, but take him to his residence. I differed, and stated my reason, that if I dressed his wounds at once and at that place, they would heal by first intentions; and that if I did not, suppuration might take place.

Nineteenth century doctors believed many things we no longer do about the body, but concern for infection remains current. Best practices for sanitation, unfortunately for their patients, have come a long ways since. You could tell an accomplished surgeon of the era by his apron, turned black and stiff with dried blood. That doesn’t make them malevolent, though many doctors did resist adopting more modern methods that we know produce better outcomes. They did their best by the knowledge they had.

Boyle took stock of Sumner’s condition, discovering

There were marks of three wounds on the scalp, but only two that I dressed. One was a very slight wound, that required no special attention. One was two and a quarter inches long, cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged. […] The other is not quite two inches long

I can’t imagine Sumner’s head must have felt. We know how profusely they bled, but it sounds like a flap of his scalp was just torn up. The committee pressed for the literally gory details and Boyle confirmed that both wounds “cut to the bone”.

I have the probe now in my pocket, from which the blood has not been washed [Instrument produced.] One was a cut to the depth of nearly an inch. It is only an eighth of an inch to the scale, but it was a cut in and down.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The two cuts fell on the left side of the back of the head, apparently dealt when Sumner was still bent down or as he tried to flee, and “in front, about two inches from the median line.” Additionally, Sumner suffered bruising and less serious cuts. Boyle remarked that

There was one slight mark on the back of his head, but not severe enough to require dressing […] There were marks on the hands also, and a red mark down the face near the temple

It sounds like Sumner managed to block or deflect at least a few of Brooks’ thirty licks. It might well have saved his life. Boyle testified that a strike to the temple could have gone right through into the brain, or cut the artery there. Either could have killed. Brooks instead hit the thickest part of the skull. That in mind, Boyle said that “Such blows would not ordinarily produce death.”

“I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 2

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

After his caning, Charles Sumner saw Senator John Slidell of Louisiana just once. Slidell saw Sumner twice. At the time of the attack, he sat in a room adjacent to the Senate speaking to Stephen Douglas and a few other men. A messenger rushed in with news that someone had laid into Sumner, which Slidell shrugged off as none of his business. A few minutes later, another person came through and told them that it had ended, Preston Brooks did the attacking, and Sumner suffered serious injury. That stirred Slidell to move. He came into the Senate to see Sumner bloodied on the floor, surrounded by others and in no state to mark a man who kept clear of his immediate surrounds. Slidell left the Senate after getting an account of what happened. He and Sumner met again in the doorway to a reception area, where Slidell declined to offer help and just got out of his way.

As he explained to the Senate a week later:

I am not particularly fond of scenes of any sort. I have no associations or relations of any kind with Mr. Sumner; I have not spoken to him for two years. I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy, or make any advances towards him. If I had continued, I should have crossed his path, and interrupted his progress to a sofa; he was evidently faint and weak. I very naturally turned in another direction; and instead of passing through the ante-room, entered the Senate chamber

Slidell gave a remarkable and complex account of himself in those few words. He admitted that he didn’t care for Sumner, had nothing to do with him, and didn’t view the news of his attack as something worth so much as interrupting a conversation over. Even once he has the full story and could see Sumner’s injuries, he exudes indifference. At the same time, his second encounter with Sumner brings a strictly practical explanation. They met in a doorway and he didn’t want to slow Sumner’s path to the couch. Sumner’s two word account of Slidell, that he retreated, implies that Slidell exhibited pure indifference to his plight. The Louisianan objected on the grounds that he had nothing but indifference toward Sumner, but for a slightly different reason. He and Sumner blocked the door for each other. Slidell made sure that the Senate understood that he didn’t care before explaining his retreat as a simple impasse of the kind everyone has. It wouldn’t do for people, Senators or otherwise, to think he exhibited any deference to a gravely wounded colleague.

The Senator concluded with a few additional notes:

whatever may have been his [Sumner’s] intentions, or the intentions of those who have prompted this course of examination, it is calculated to deceive the public and make a false impression on popular opinion. I believe that to be the object.

Just what false impression Slidell had in mind for the House Committee, he made clear a few sentences later. He understood their work, and Sumner’s testimony, as part of a plot to implicate himself and other proslavery men in Brooks’ attack. He had not conspired with the South Carolinian, thank you. Nor would he suffer the House to think he had and air their wild claims to the nation unanswered. The House report made no such claims.

“Without any particular emotion” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 1

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner moving into the Senate lobby, covered in his own blood and supported by Edwin Morgan. There they came upon John Slidell (D-LA), who Sumner later testified “retreated” rather than offer aid, ask about his health, or even express idle dismay at a fellow senator’s state. Slidell didn’t care for how Sumner reported that at all, so he got up on the Senate on May 27 to offer an explanation for himself.

After the Senate adjourned on the day of the caning, Slidell went out into the antechamber. He saw Stephen Douglas in conversation with a few others, all sitting together. Slidell asked if he could join them and they obliged. A few minutes went by, during which Slidell believed them alone in the room, then a messenger of the Senate rushed in “rushed in, apparently in great trepidation” and told them that someone had commenced beating Senator Sumner.

We heard this remark without any particular emotion; for my own part, I confess I felt none. I am not disposed to participate in broils of any kind. I remained very quietly in my seat; the other gentlemen did the same; we did not move.

Word came a few minute after that Brooks, his name entering into it for the first time, left Sumner “very badly beaten” and the fight had ended. This changed things for Slidell. He previously thought the fight an incidental one. Now he “felt a little more interest” but remained disinclined to involve himself. He started for the Senate chamber with a mind to reaching his desk

A crowd surrounded the second chair on the other side of the lobby, and I was told that Mr. Sumner was there extended in a state of insensibility, prostrate on the floor. I did not endeavor to approach him; I did not see him; I suppose there were twenty or thirty persons around him.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

All the witnesses assume a frustrating familiarity with the layout of the Senate and surrounding rooms, but Slidell offers more help than most. He places the lobby within the Senate chamber, but different from the anteroom he and Douglas occupied. From the lobby, you could still follow floor proceedings. It appears that Slidell first saw Sumner before he moved far and Sumner missed him. Slidell asked and got a brief explanation of what happened and went back to the anteroom to resume his conversation.

Slidell crossed paths with Sumner “in the door-way of the reception-room, leaning on two persons whom I did not recognize. His face was covered with blood.”

“Soaked with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 13

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12

The House report on the caning

Everything vanished into a haze of pain and confusion for Charles Sumner when Preston Brooks started raining down blows from his gutta-percha cane. The Senator had no memory from the first blow until “several minutes” later, when he found himself on the floor. Edmund Morgan kept him from falling hard on it, but couldn’t stop his descent entirely. Ambrose Murray held Preston Brooks back. John Crittenden, Robert Toombs, and Stephen Douglas stood nearby. Crittenden took Brooks’ cane from him.

They stood over a Sumner

lying down, resting partly upon one of the desks that had been turned over, seeming very much stunned, and covered with blood.

That blood soaked into Morgan’s “coat and shirt-sleeves” to saturation. A week later, Morgan informed an outraged crowd of five thousand in New York City that when he caught Sumner, he beheld a man

laid senseless as a corpse for several minutes his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds and the blood saturating his clothes.

Sumner himself reported being “unaware of the blood on my clothes” until he returned to his room. There he discovered

The shirt around the neck and collar was soaked with blood. The waistcoat had many marks of blood upon it; also the trowsers. The broadcloth coat was covered with blood on the shoulders so thickly that the blood had soaked through the cloth even through the padding, and appeared on the inside; there was a great deal of blood on the back of the coat and its sides.

Morgan further told the New York meeting of bystander senators, “complacently looking on, without the least intention of assisting.” The crowd demanded naming and shaming, so Morgan obliged with Toombs, to groans, and Douglas, to cries of “Shame.” By this point Morgan must have known Sumner’s testimony and we can’t take his account of Toombs and Douglas standing by as entirely independent, but he likely had a closer vantage to Sumner’s than anybody in the chamber and both Senators place themselves in the room at the time.

John Slidell

When those several minutes passed and Sumner regained consciousness. He asked for his hat, which set off a brief search, and that someone see to the documents on his desk. Then, with Morgan’s help, Sumner staggered into the anteroom of the Senate. Douglas and others occupied that room just before the caning began, including Louisiana Senator John Slidell, who Sumner noticed. Sumner said that Slidell “retreated.”

Sumner doesn’t give a clue to his state of mind with regard to Slidell in his terse reference, but Slidell could read between the lines. Faced with a fellow senator just brutalized and bloodied, erect only with the support of another man, the Louisianan gave the whole affair a big shrug and went on with his day. That kind of indifference looks like approval. Morgan and company may have had Sumner physically in hand, but Slidell could have said something. It would have cost him nothing to express sympathy or inquire after Sumner’s health. Simple human decency might prompt at least formulaic phrases for anyone so clearly hurt. Slidell stood silent.

 

 

George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims

LEE IS NO DIFFERENT THAN WASHINGTON

Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.